Shillong Memories: Contending and Contentious

I recently sat down to rest at the side of the Shillong Centenary Monument, the one opposite the State Central Library. Next to me was an old Bengali man who was drunk. We started talking about the town and the incidents in the past, meaning he started talking and I tried to understand what he was saying. What little I could comprehend painted a picture of Shillong that I cannot truly imagine today. He spoke about how Police Bazaar looked back in the day, maybe similar to how parts of Laban or Mawkhar still look like today. How the Governor’s Residence looked like without the road and walls around it today, he talked about personalities long since departed. He described the geography and history of the place in a ‘warm’ manner and that is probably the greatest gift any narrator can have.

However, as I say that, there were also some things which I find hard to accept. The main one being his assertion that the communities of various localities never had any problems amongst themselves prior to the Anti (Assamese) Language protests in the 1950s. We know that many different communities once lived together in areas that are today considered strictly tribal or non-tribal neighbourhoods. Areas like Mawkhar, Mawprem, Mawlai once had fairly large non tribal populations. Today only few such families/individuals (who had already integrated fairly well) call these places home. I run the risk of categorisation but it is not my intent to delve deeply into the singular lives of individuals here. My personal reservation with the statement, that prior to the 1950s all was hunky-dory between the communities, is because it seems to be based on a heavily romanticised version of Shillong history. Everyone is suffering from this, regardless of race. This imagined harmony is at odds with the grim picture of a reality in which people who supposedly “lived together peacefully” picked up daos, brands, crowbars and decided to do away or expel their former neighbours forever.

We can always blame the Reorganisation of the states, we can always find an external bogeyman to hate but the truth that confronts us says something more: If we lived in “peace” why was it so seemingly easy to kill and cast out our erstwhile neighbours? If today, we can forgive what happened back then, we should also ask ourselves what were the reasons for them happening in the first place? It is quite clear that there were real human tensions back then. People had insecurities and fears back then, as they do today. The Language issue was the explosion, it was not the pressure that led up to it. For this, we would have to dredge through the (romantically) mired past. I would wager, even, that it was not only the British/Europeans who were at fault as many in the Right like to point out. The Divide and Rule policy was hardly anything new if we confront things from a non-nationalistic perspective, especially in this part of the world. We, also, cannot simply blame “dkhars” for all the problems of the world. They cannot carry all our sins on their crosses. We would see the collusion of a number of interests if we truly sought out facts.

Perhaps in our attempt to cover up the trauma of those years of strife and friction, we divide history into easily workable blocks: in this case, pre- and post Language agitation. Pre-agitation might very well have been a time of building and working together but it is erroneous to assume that there was always “peace”. In side houses or taverns, in the tea shops or offices were there no complaints or hate mongering against the other communities? The stereotypes and crude racial caricatures that we use today must have had origins in that past. These are the same insensitive images that make violence acceptable and casual. We can attack, more efficiently, that which we consider inhuman. We can justify causing them pain, because it is not our pain.

I was once privy to an odd event at a dinner. There were two young people at the table – an Assamese and a Bengali- along with the older Khasi host. I cannot remember the exact topic of conversation but suddenly our host became very emotional upon her vivid description of the burning down of some non-tribal houses at Garikhana. She turned to the Assamese and Bengali, asking them to forgive her community. I was amazed at the spectacle, as were the two non tribal friends. Isn’t that the way forward: reconciliation with the past? Confronting those memories head-on would take time and strength but they have to be revisited if we are to go forward. We should not be naive and think that since certain things occurred in the past, they must be buried deep down. They can happen again if we are not careful. The current atmosphere of taut nerves does not give me hope. Only a new politics can address the mistakes and prepare us for the future. We must make an attempt at histories without too much bias. We must revisit why Nongmali is called by that name, who taught many of the residents of Mawkhar breadmaking, who helped raise the foundations of many socio-cultural organisations/institutions we have today and so on. The shared histories are definitely there. Whether they were truly filled with peace is a different matter altogether but perhaps we can find it, for the future generations, by looking back (with a brave eye) and not grounding ourselves in the baseless and supposedly grand.

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Shillong, Our City

Sometime in the late 1800s the British rulers decided to shift their base at Sohra to a new one under the watch of Lum Shillong, a mountain to the north of the Sohra station. It was a faithful decision and today we enjoy (or bear) its consequences. The British were quick to initiate the installation of a number of civic bodies and institutions to ensure that their lives up in these hills were comfortable and “civilised”. They brought a good number of sepoys, sweepers, clerks etc to facilitate this. Traders from elsewhere also followed them in, seeking the good favours and good transactions that the British were able to foster. These people came from all over, from different races: from Nepal to Dhaka (Dacca), from Rajasthan to, even, China. Slowly but surely they started to build and mould this city into the face we see today. Whether that face is pleasant or hideous is a different matter entirely. But the main point is that the face of Shillong is multifarious, the origins of Shillong are as well. You’d be hard-pressed even in metros to observe this singular variety. However, like any diverse society, there are many who seek to propagate a polarising politics and more troubling, a single universal identity- in this case based on ethnicity.

The biggest threat today is amnesia. We have accepted without question and research, the stereotypical assertions about nationhood, identity and consequently, politics. Much of this has come down from the British or influential wannabe sahibs of the past decades. Our identity has become crystallised and that is why answers to questions relating to authenticity and purity (Khasi blood) remain elusive. It is best not to solidify but to resolve through fact finding and, indeed, soul searching. The ones who have concretised their identity have done so with much confusion and unanswered questions. This is perhaps one reasons why they lash outward, away from their selves.

As I write this I remember one of the murdered men who lost their lives during the ILP ‘game’: Brisheshwar Das. A tea seller who could have been any one of us; struggling, endeavouring to achieve, at times having to be an engine, at other times, maybe, a clown with his friends. He was killed in cold blood and it is our collective shame, a burden we cannot shrug off. I look at the hue and cry Khasi newspapers make over the terrorist Islamic State in the far-away lands and I feel bitter. They never gave Das’ story the space and gravitas which it deserved. They never went in to analyse the ‘how’ and ‘why’. They never showed condolence perhaps because they secretly knew what most of the people in this place feel like : that his life was mere collateral. I feel sick to my stomach when I think about the hypocrisy when we shout about Assamese or Delhiites or the Sangh associates or whatever, hurting or insulting “our” people. It seems that to murder and to injure is fine as long as we do not do it to “our” own!

We must realise one thing: this is OUR city. Let us shout it out! It does not belong to the KSU, the Church, the Congress ‘jhamela’ etc, it does not belong to a clan or family. We may refuse to accept it but the fact is – we built it, together, tribal and non tribal alike. It is not fair nor even historically correct to assert that this as a Khasi city, or that everyone who is not one should always feel a stranger in the very place they grew up in. All sides have been equally guilty of the impasse though and it is wrong only to blame Khasis. A lot of dialogue must be encouraged but very little is being done currently to counter this ethno-fascism. Political parties and their pressure groups are the worst. They come along and make a boundary dispute between two neighbours, a fight between Karbi and Khasi etc i.e. a fight between races. Perhaps (for all my dislike of the Congress) this is one important reason why people vote them in? Maybe people see it as the only party that can rule across cultures and communities? Forget the promises of development which are always tooted, in Meghalaya (and North East) they are possibly the only party that can govern, pan-state. Their roster maybe be filled with controversial people but it is a cross section of the state and this city. Regional parties today seem more like district parties, unable to spread or garner support beyond a few administrative blocks. Alternatives hopefully will emerge sooner rather than later.

Let us relook at Shillong as a British invention. The British never really intended for dkhars or Khasis to enjoy the fruits of the civilisation they brought in. We hear about “European Wards” but do we realise the intrinsic racism of this grouping, the discrimination in our own land? It was not in Laitumkhrah or Mawlai or Nongthymmai or Mawkhar that the supposedly “civilised” resided. The British had no intention of sharing, not if they had their way. But times changed and realities did as well. The empire weakened and our people were set upon the first steps towards the clerical life (that “lovely” mode of being that we all still wish to enjoy). Now, as a “tribal” people, we can boast much and there is very little we cannot achieve if we set our minds to. The point is that: we are here today, because of others aiding us along the way. I am not painting people in a flattering light, don’t get me wrong, I just want to acknowledge the little tasks, performed daily, that have led to this moment. Shillong city as we know it today emerged because everyone, from Bihari labourer to Nongstoin mason, Chinese restaurateurs to Tibetan businessmen, pitched in. We built it; an inch at a time over these hundred odd years. No one has the right to take that away from us.